But how does Cruz do it so well at 36? His trim physique and nonstop conditioning—he has only 8% body fat on his 6-foot frame—are undoubtedly two factors. During the season, most players are content to lift some light weights and do some stretching. Cruz does those things and also, when his schedule permits, runs with Victor Lopez, the women's track coach at Rice University. "We go two, three miles and do sprints—100, 200,400 yards," Cruz says. "I get tired doing nothing around my house." Between games he also enjoys tinkering with vintage cars. In Houston and in Puerto Rico he maintains about a dozen, but his favorite is a 1946 Cadillac.
When the season ends, he takes his wife, Zoraida, and children, Jose Javier, Jose Cheito, Shakira and Jose Enrique, home to Puerto Rico, where he plays winter-league ball—as a rightfielder—from late October to mid-January.
"With the long schedules you can get mentally tired," he says. "I like to do things different. I'll wear high socks, low socks, fool around with teammates...." Anyone who has been around Cruz can finish his sentence: "...show up for interviews early, late or even on time; sneak up behind teammates and make them jump." Says Garner, "He does a lot of crazy things, but he does one thing right—hit to all fields."
The eldest son of a grocer-farmer, Cruz played four different sports at Arroyo High. Two of his four brothers, former big-leaguers Heity and Tommy, are playing in Japan, and Tommy was at week's end leading the Pacific League with a .336 average for the Nippon Ham Fighters. "Imagine that," says Cheo, thinking positively, "two batting champions in one family."
But Cheo is unquestionably the pride of Puerto Rico. "Everywhere he goes people yell, 'Cheo, Cheo,' " says Kenny Hand of The Houston Post, who accompanied the Astros to an exhibition series in Puerto Rico two springs ago. "He's the most popular ballplayer in Puerto Rico since Roberto Clemente." With his dashing good looks, he's also a hit in the Astrodome, where crowds roar to the P.A. announcer's introduction of "Crooooz!"
Early in the season, with Ryan hurt, Dawley still in the minors and various on-field difficulties, Crooooz was one of the few things Houston fans had to cheer about. But the front office never panicked, even when it looked as though the team might never win a game, and the Astros began their stunning about-face. "You have to give management credit for not making wholesale changes after the bad beginning," says Garner.
"We concentrated on improving areas that had been costing us games, especially fielding and moving up runners," says Lillis, who, along with his coaches, received a new two-year contract last week. "There was no finger-pointing. We told the players that we had faith in their ability and set .500 as our first goal. We made it by the All-Star Game. Then we concentrated on climbing each rung of the ladder until we got into contention."
As for Cruz, he just kept cruising along. Wham!